Earlier this year, I read an inspiring recollection (by Sydney Brenner) of a grand scientific milestone: the elucidation of the genetic code. How do DNA nucleotides code for the amino-acid sequence of proteins? This fundamental question had captivated numerous scientists, including Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner. The punchline of this wonderful interview/recollection is a magnanimous act by Francis Crick:
In August 1961, more than 5,000 scientists came to Moscow for five days of research talks at the International Congress of Biochemistry. A couple of days in, Matt Meselson, a friend of Crick’s, told him the news: The first word of the genetic code had been solved, by somebody else. In a small Friday afternoon talk at the Congress, in a mostly empty room, Marshall Nirenberg—an American biochemist and a complete unknown to Crick and Brenner—reported that he had fed a single repeated letter into a system for making proteins, and had produced a protein made of repeating units of just one of the amino acids. The first word of the code was solved. And it was clear that Nirenberg’s approach would soon solve the entire code.
Here’s where I like to imagine what I would have done if I were Crick. For someone driven solely by curiosity, Nirenberg’s result was terrific news: The long-sought answer was arriving. The genetic code would be cracked. But for someone with the human urge to attach one’s name to discoveries, the news could not have been worse. Much of nearly a decade’s worth of Crick and Brenner’s work on the coding problem was about to be made redundant.
I’d like to believe I would have reacted honorably. I wouldn’t have explained away Nirenberg’s finding to myself, concocting reasons why it wasn’t convincing. I wouldn’t have returned to my lab and worked a little faster to publish my own work sooner. I’ve seen scientists react like this to competition. I’d like to believe that I would have conceded defeat and congratulated Nirenberg. Of course, I’ll never know what I would have done.
Crick’s response was, to me, remarkable and exemplary. He implored Nirenberg to give his talk again, this time to announce the result to more than 1,000 people in a large symposium that Crick was chairing. Crick’s Moscow meeting booklet survives as an artifact of his decision, with a hand-written “Nirenberg” in blue ink, and a long arrow inserting into an already-packed schedule the scientist who had just scooped him. And when Nirenberg reached the stage, he reported that his lab had just solved a second word of the code.
I admire Crick’s reaction. It is very honorable. In the long run, it helped both science and Crick’s reputation. Nirenberg had a correct result and sooner or later, he was going to receive credit for it. Crick facilitated this process, and in the process Crick only added to his own credit. Our current admiration for Crick’s reaction at the Moscow conference is the only proof I need.
Any interpretation that sees Crick’s magnanimous act as being good only for the science but bad for Crick’s personal reputation is myopic; it misses the long run. It misses mine (and hopefully yours) opinion of Crick’s magnanimous act.